The first picture you see at “Lucian Freud: The Self Portraits” you could just as easily miss: It’s small and muddy, tucked to the side of a big block of wall text at the Museum of Fine Arts. Freud painted it in 1940, when he was just 18, at the very beginning of what would be an almost seven-decade career. The meaty face, eyes narrowed, swims in a deathly palette of dull pinks, grays, and greens. It’s quavering and uncertain, flesh rippling as though underwater.
It might be the last time Freud was unsure of anything. “Self Portrait” (1940) is as subdued as you’ll ever find Freud, with his reputation made on big pictures of hot flesh. He’s one of those artists whose reputation precedes him: canonized in his time, adored by critics and scholars for his inventive, painterly bluster, fixed in the public imagination for his merciless nudes of everyone from a fleshy civil servant to Kate Moss, Freud had the nervy public presence of a central-casting cliche. With 14 children — that he acknowledged — by nearly as many women, portraying Freud as a man of appetites and excess was easy tabloid fodder. The artist himself, who died in 2011, made little defense, staying private while scrutinized in public. He almost never gave interviews, famously breaking a lifetime of near media silence in 2008 to advocate for the British National Gallery’s acquisition of Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon” — and on TV, no less.
Why is this story important? Maybe because it shows Freud as an artist whose priorities were straight and single-minded from the start, and whose mastery of the world over which he had complete control — the one on canvas — was to him the only world that mattered. “The Self Portraits” takes that notion to the expected extreme: Freud on Freud, no filter.
The show, imported from the Royal Academy in London, is exhausting, its 50-plus pictures leaving you wrung out. But it’s a good tired, as they say, with revelation in store. It’s not a complete survey of the artist’s oeuvre, famous for its visceral, unflinching realism — bodies, bodies, and more bodies nude, dressed, somewhere in-between (he also painted still lifes, though they’re much less known). But oh my, what a show all the same.
To be clear: I’ve never much liked Freud, especially his later work, finding his unforgiving bluntness a strange mix of gaudy and crude, with his nominal quest for truth often coming across as melodramatic caricature dressed in stage clothes. That said, I do admire him — his toughness, his dedication, his single-mindedness. “The Self-Portraits,” spanning nearly his entire painting life, from that slippery teenage self through his 80th year, in 2002, brought me closer to understanding, if not appreciating. It charts an arc, both stylistic and personal. It’s theatrical, with an air of menace; it’s showy, playful, and inevitably overwrought. It’s about a life, on the surface, which was as much as Freud ever intended or allowed.
You can read what you like into Freud’s various disavowals, early in his career, of tradition, history, and interpretative frames. (Being the grandson of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, would have that effect; the artist chafed with the inevitable suggestions of a Freudian slant to his work, having famously said he’d only read his grandfather’s work lightly, scanning it for jokes.) For all his protestations, Freud was a student of the past, pushing back as he took from it. He famously had an all-hours pass to the National Galleries, where he would walk the corridors at night when he was stuck, drinking inspiration from Courbet, Ingres, Degas.
But for Freud, painting was about surface, the moment, the world right in front of him. Paint was flesh, he said, and flesh was paint, transferred without ceremony to canvas. Painting, for Freud, was an indelicate act, a declaration of unvarnished reality.
What to make, then, of a pair of early paintings, “Man With a Feather” (1944) and “Man With a Thistle (Self-portrait)” (1946) with its crisp lines and compressed perspective, looking more than a little like a De Chirico? While Freud took an interest in Surrealism early on, it would have been career poison to overstate it (Surrealism’s claim to draw on a collective unconscious derived from Grandpa Sigmund’s work directly). But on that, let’s give him a pass. In the 1940s, when artists were allying with various elements of a splintering avant-garde — Abstract Expressionists with European Surrealism, for one — Freud, against the fashion and a growing appetite for aggressive newness, stuck close to the age-old convention of figure painting. He ultimately chose to be himself.
An act of hubris — supreme confidence, bordering on arrogance — or one of inevitability? Freud’s work was relentless in pursuit of truth, “about myself and my surroundings … purely autobiographical,” he said, deflating any notion that he sought the essence of his subjects, a greater truth, or soul behind their eyes. That’s partly why his work could seem so deeply unkind, so uncaring about bland notions of flattery or even beauty. (One of his sitters, the antiquarian book dealer Bernard Breslauer, was dismayed enough that he had his portrait destroyed.)
Freud spared himself such bleak portrayals in his early work — he’s sleek and pretty in portraits from the ’40s, with a mop of cherubic curls — but the show’s strength is in its arc, young to old. As he ages, everything changes, and Freud is true to his word: small canvas to large; flat surface to crusted impasto, almost crumbling before your eyes on his craggy cheekbones and ragged brow; smug confidence giving way to a wizened reckoning with the inevitable.
You can think of it as a technical evolution, and maybe it was partly that. There’s the absurdly eerie “Hotel Bedroom” from 1954, with Freud looming in shadow over his second wife, Caroline Blackwood, who’s tucked in bed. She’s pale and wan, distressed, a hand touched to a sunken eye. It’s haunting, crisp, and spare, its smooth surface just starting to show tracks. A few feet away, “Man’s Head (Self-portrait),” from 1963, ripples with the fleshy presence of paint.
But Freud was about more than technique. As you pass through the show — past theatrical works like 1965′s “Reflection With Two Children,” with Freud towering like a skyscraper; or “Interior With Plant, Reflection Listening (Self portrait),” from 1967-68, where Freud swims in the shadows behind the fronds of a snake plant — notice the surface, the stuff. Here, the aging artist emerges, as though from a fog, in rough brush strokes from a partly-finished canvas; there, his head is tilted, paint heaped on his cheeks and brow like sediment.
Is it a coincidence that paint thickens and mounds as Freud grows older, baggage accumulating, time dragging at his work as it does his weakening limbs, his curving back? You can look at “Flora With Blue Toenails,” from 2000-01 — it features a young woman Freud met in a restaurant, splayed on a bed, naked, her knees purpling like raw meat, her thighs and abdomen a sickly, yellowing gray — and wonder about the cruelty of that gaze, its objectifying and nasty-seeming leer. (The painting qualifies as a self-portrait because the artist appears, Lee Friedlander-like, as a shadow, the silhouette of his head falling on the bed.)
Or you can look closer, to the surface of things, to see a topography of materials, crusted in thick mounds, worked and then worked again. “The Self-Portraits,” Boston version, doesn’t include 1993’s “Painter Working, Reflection.” It’s a shame. In it, Freud is sagging and naked head to toe, brush and palette in hand — subject to the same unsparing gaze and indelicate painterly treatment. It tells you something, I think, about where his true interest lay.
That piece not having made the trip across the Atlantic, we’ll have to settle for “Self-portrait,” 2002, with its ragged Freud, eyes empty, a world of shadow falling. His face is a landscape of crumbling ruin — jagged swipes of thick color, deep crevices, dark voids. For Freud, paint grabbed life in its sticky embrace and held it tight. What it held, it couldn’t keep — something the artist, in his relentless pursuit of truth, knew all too well. As he painted life, he also was painting its inevitable slippage, its wither and fade. His blunt devotion to the world in front of him, as it was, made mortality his real subject, something “The Self Portraits” rings clear as a bell. As he painted life, he also painted death.
LUCIAN FREUD: THE SELF-PORTRAITS
Through May 25. At the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org